Getting Started: Expanding Your Online Store into International Markets

It’s certainly easier to sell products within your own country — cross-border sales involve customs, duties and other complications.

But the potential of expanding your ecommerce store into international markets can’t be ignored. Cross-border sales can make the difference between a struggling online operation and an extremely successful store

And we’ve seen significant growth in cross-border sales in recent years. By 2022, international ecommerce is expected to make up 22% of total ecommerce

graph depicting cross-border ecommerce as share of total ecommerce worldwide in 2016 and 2022
Image source: Business 2 Community

One trend that’s been driving this growth is that internet access has been steadily improving in developing regions of the world. There are simply many more people who are able to buy products online in other countries than there used to be.

In this guide, we’ll show you everything you need to know to start making cross-border sales through your own ecommerce store.

How to Get Started Expanding into International Markets

Before you attempt to make your first cross-border sale, consider the four tips listed below. These will help you avoid the time- and money-wasting mistakes that online sellers often make when they get started with international ecommerce. 

  1. Market Research: Which international markets are most worth your attention? There are a number of tools you can use to find the answer to this question. Resources such as Export.gov and PayPal Passport can help you learn about the buying trends in different countries and determine which ones are the best fits for your business.
  2. Payment Methods: Another area that will require some research is determining which payment methods are the most popular in the countries you’re targeting. There are often key differences here, depending on a number of factors. You must make sure that the most common payment methods in the countries you want to sell to are available on your site. 
  3. Start Small: International ecommerce isn’t like some switch that you can only flip on or off. There’s no need to sell all your products to all countries. At first, you’ll likely run into some costs you weren’t expecting, which can absolutely ruin your profit margin. While you’re still getting your bearings, you should limit yourself to selling select products to a small number of countries to minimize this risk. 
  4. Test on an Established Marketplace: Before you make any changes to your own site in order to accommodate international ecommerce, you should see how your products perform on an established marketplace for international sales, such as eBay. You should also consider using more localized marketplaces depending on the countries you’re targeting, such as AliExpress in China and Mercado Libre in Latin America. 
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Multi-Language Apps

When you’re ready to commit to international commerce, the first thing you should do is feature this fact on your site and list which countries your products are available in.

The next thing you should do is install a multi-language app. To be successful in international ecommerce, you’ll need to have an effective system in place for translating your content. 

The following multi-language apps are especially effective:

  • ConveyThis: With ConveyThis, you can use an automatic machine translator to quickly convert your site into 92 of the most popular languages. There’s a free plan that offers one translated language for up to 2,500 words. The rates for the premium plans go up to $99 per month for more translated languages, words and additional features (access to professional translators for manual edits, CSV import/export, etc.). 
  • Weglot: This app is able to translate your store’s content into over 100 different languages. It will automatically translate your content for the visitor based on their browser settings, and it allows you to go in and manually make edits to translations as well. Prices range from €9.90 to €199 per month depending on the number of words that need to be translated and the number of languages that you would like them to be translated into. 

Multi-Currency Apps

Most countries also don’t use the U.S. dollar as their currency, so you’ll need a currency conversion app as well. Consider the following:

  • Auto Currency Switcher: This Shopify exclusive is one of the most popular currency conversion apps on the platform. There’s a free version that offers 200 currency options and a dropdown selector menu, plus a premium version for $9.95 per month that provides extra features such as IP-based country/currency detection and flag icons.
  • Zonos International Checkout: As good as the Auto Currency Switcher app is, it simply won’t be an option for you if you don’t use Shopify. In that case, you should check out Zonos International Checkout — as the name implies, in addition to a feature that allows customers to make purchases with their local currency, it offers a complete checkout experience. Also, it’s available as a plugin for Shopify, BigCommerce and Magento, and there’s an API that you can use to connect it to any site.

International Shipping

There’s one question at the center of all issues regarding ecommerce order fulfillment: Are you going to store and ship your products yourself, or are you going to hire a third-party order fulfillment company to handle this for you?

For most stores, using an order fulfillment company makes the most sense. Otherwise, you would need to invest in your own warehouses (as well as the equipment and workers needed to run them), which requires an enormous upfront investment and is difficult to scale as your order volume goes up and down.

An order fulfillment company makes even more sense for international ecommerce. Shipping something within your own country is simple enough, but at the international level, this involves a different set of customs and duties for each country you ship to. 

graph depicting the shipping process for export customs and import customs clearance
Image source: Transporteca

Figuring all that out on your own can be a real headache. International order fulfillment companies already have the experience needed to successfully navigate those Kafkaesque mazes of rules and regulations, so you can spend your time focusing on all the other matters that affect your business. 

  • Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA): Order fulfillment is all about infrastructure. The more warehouses you have, the easier it will be to quickly ship an item to any given customer. This is especially important in international ecommerce, as you’re dealing with much greater distances than domestic sales. No one has better infrastructure than Amazon (175 fulfillment centers dispersed throughout the world), and with their FBA service you can use it for shipping your own products to over 100 countries.
  • Easyship: While they may not have as many facilities as Amazon, Easyship does have warehouses all around the globe, from the U.S. to the Netherlands to Hong Kong. They’ll also work out your duty charges for you, so you’ll know exactly how much shipping will cost you before you send out a cross-border order. 
teal and purple abstract image with globes on it

Making the Leap to International Markets

Broadening your store borders can be a solid step for your online store.

Once you’ve selected your solutions for language translation, currency conversion and order fulfillment, you’ll be ready to start improving your bottom line with cross-border sales. And if you're not quite ready to make the leap, you can start forecasting costs and processes now to make the transition easier later.

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Adam Ritchie

Adam Ritchie is a writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He writes about ecommerce trends and best practices for Shogun. His previous clients include Groupon, Clutch and New Theory.